100 Years at the "Hart" of American Elections

04/17/2012 03:50 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2012

For the vast majority of voting Americans, elections are a quadrennial affair. And while we may have a great time watching the politics -- who's up, who's down, who's in, who's out, and who strapped his dog to the top of his roof -- we don't spend a lot of mental energy on process.

The few precious minutes on Election Day when we make our decisions and cast our ballots are only the most obvious part of a long chain of events that must be planned and executed, accurately and securely. There is an entire hard-working, professional community (secretaries of state, state and local government officials, administrators, and citizen poll workers to name a few) that supports those few minutes, about which most of us know little to nothing.

For a behind the scenes look at the complex arteries that service the beating heart of our democracy, I sat down with Phillip Braithwaite, CEO of Hart InterCivic, a company that has spent the last century providing technology, services and support to election administrators in states, counties and municipalities, helping them run and manage their elections.

Can you tell us about the life cycle of a ballot?
Ballots are more complicated than one might realize. First, the candidates competing for the offices up for election must be certified. Each race must then be "mapped" onto a set of overlapping boundaries associated with an individual voter's address. If census data indicates many non-English speakers in a district, ballots must be translated. These complexities can mean that a single jurisdiction could require more than 40,000 ballot styles! Once designed, the ballots must be rigorously proofread for content and layout and then publicly tested to ensure that votes are recorded accurately.

At that point, a ballot is ready for production. The production process is one that must ensure authenticity of ballots cast. Whether paper or electronic, many methods for ballot security are employed, including digital signatures and various forms of encryption. Elections officials must ensure that only eligible voters receive ballots, by mail or in the booth on Election Day.

When voting begins, as paper ballots are scanned or as electronic ballots are submitted, most modern voting systems record the results onto some secure media, similar to a memory stick. Those memory cards are transported to the "central counting station" after the close of polls where they can be read in a matter of minutes with tabulation software. That allows administrators to immediately publish unofficial results. Several weeks later, an official body will "canvass" and certify the results.

As you can see, you need trained people, detailed procedures, and reliable, accurate technology to run a secure election. You can't do it with any one of those things; all three are essential.  

Are voting processes making a transition from paper to electronic?

The election landscape today includes both electronic and paper ballots, though it's fair to say that in recent years, there has a been an upswing of interest in a return to traditional paper ballots. The main reason is that paper ballots offer a level of transparency and auditability that many people find comforting. The feeling is that regardless of what happens with complex software and hardware, paper records can always be double‐checked.

Having said that, it is also true that electronic voting is likely to remain an important part of the overall picture for the foreseeable future.  For one thing, electronic technology -- even when it's used in conjunction with paper ballots -- offers greater accessibility to persons with disabilities.  And it's also true that political culture varies from place to place, in terms of what voters are comfortable with. Larger districts in particular may feel that all‐electronic elections are far easier and more cost‐effective to manage, and their voting communities are comfortable with that.  

With a resurgent preference for paper backups, how has technology affected voting, if at all?

Technology has most significantly impacted elections in two areas. First, changes in technology have supported a broad trend in the direction of greater enfranchisement.  It's easier for more people to vote privately and independently than ever before, and that's exactly as it should be.  A jurisdiction's voting population can include a diverse range of voters with different needs, and the value of modern voting technology is that it can accommodate that range with different methods of voting.  For example, more jurisdictions can efficiently manage many ballot styles at fewer polling locations. "Early voting," one‐stop "vote centers," and other types of convenience voting make it easier for more voters to participate in elections, and that's an important change.

In another example of greater enfranchisement, years ago a blind person might have sacrificed his or her privacy in order to mark a ballot.  But today that same voter can vote privately and independently, just like anyone else, by listening to the ballot with audio. Even voters with severe mobility impairments can use devices that allow them to mark selections and cast their ballot simply by exhaling or inhaling -- again, privately and independently. It's pretty life‐changing to see the excitement and satisfaction that comes from being able to easily accomplish something that once seemed difficult or even impossible; the sense of achievement and basic human dignity is profound. So, as an elections services company, I feel good when we at Hart InterCivic can help voters have experiences like that.

The second major impact of technology has been to help election officials more efficiently carry out elections. Particularly when budgets are tight at the state and local level, the ability to have choices about how to run an election, and to deploy resources in a smart, focused way is critical. Election professionals are always thinking about how to be good stewards of the taxpayers' dollars, and voting technology plays an important part in that process. A variety of choices in by‐mail or in‐person voting, with electronic or paper ballots, offers the potential to reduce overhead costs and speed the process of tabulating results. And, at Hart, we continue to push the envelope in terms of figuring out how to help election administrators run elections in the most agile, efficient way.

A common concern with electronic voting is security. What are the challenges to voting securely today? On balance, could technology help or hurt?

The biggest challenge is that modern voting systems need to manage competing concerns, including but not limited to security. They need to manage data, audio, and multiple languages; they need to be simple for poll workers to set‐up and maintain; they need to remain usable and intuitive for voters; they need to provide accessibility to persons with disabilities; they need to support privacy and equality; and they must still be cost‐effective for the counties and jurisdictions that use them, in addition to being secure and verifiable.  So a relatively complex system is somewhat unavoidable, and that makes it increasingly difficult to test or prove that everything is operating as anticipated.  For years, many security advocates and state governments went down this path, with vulnerability testing and all manner of "attacks" that ran the gamut in terms of how realistic they were (or not).     

More recently, however, forward-thinking experts in voting security have taken a slightly different approach.  Instead of looking for accidental errors or faults in every imaginable circumstance, they assume that one cannot find them all.  Instead, they argue that the best way to design a secure voting system is to aim for "software independence."  That is, produce multiple vote records and to include at least one unchangeable record that the voter can verify to be correct.  This is where paper records come into play, as they are the most obvious example of how software independence could be accomplished; if there is an undetected change or error in the voting system software, a change in the final results could still be found because the paper record is always there, and it can be counted on its own.

Another related principle that is important in executing secure voting is auditability -- the ability to double‐check things.  One of the best ways to facilitate auditability is by embracing open standards for data exchange and reporting. This makes it possible to publish and report election results and data in a format that is standardized, structured, documented, and open. Then anyone who wants to double‐check can do so.

At Hart we believe that the future of technology in voting will embrace these two critical principles -- software independence and open data exchange -- and our next generation voting system, Verity, which is set to launch next year, will be at the forefront.